Hurdle fear, depression, and maybe even experience transcendence — this article will get you up to speed with technology enhanced meditation and mindfulness, from home devices to techno-clinics and techno-retreats.
We do not have a universal definition for enlightenment (yet), but we do know that the ancient sadhus and sages used meditation as a vehicle for their efforts. Although now with the advent of the internet and the information age, the ancient teachings of meditation, mindfulness, and enlightenment are more easily accessible (and teachable) to the masses. Higher states of consciousness are now much less exotic. But first, we must overcome our depression, anxiety and fear — which is at an all-time high and has become a cognition crisis. To quote Adam Gazzaley who coined the term,
“In the United States alone, depression affects 16.2 million adults, anxiety 18.7 million, and dementia 5.7 million — a number that is expected to nearly triple in the coming decades.”
Depression alone has been named the “global burden of disease,” as it reigns as the leading cause of disability. The disease proves to be the costliest disease in the world, as stated by the World Health Organization. An estimated 400 million people worldwide suffer from depression, which increases annually. The impact of depression on business in the US is estimated to be approximately $70 billion in medical expenditures, lost productivity, and other costs, and rising. Keep in mind, that’s just depression.
The good news? Meditation is now well accepted not just a means to so-called higher states of consciousness, but also as a successful intervention for depression, anxiety, and more. In the West, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) is one example under the umbrella of contemplative practices that has been brought into places hospitals like Kaiser as a means to address wellbeing. Contemplative practices and the seemingly endless benefits on wellbeing — mental, emotional, and otherwise, are being researched at just about every major research institution of psychology and neuroscience. It’s no longer a fringe topic. Research-backed contemplative practices include: MSBR, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), mental noting, Insight Meditation, Transcendental Meditation (TM) to name just a few.
The East has met West: science continues to provide evidence for the benefit of meditation and mindfulness on wellbeing. It is not necessarily the magic cure, but the data does show enough significance for the, “I’ll believe it when I see it” bandwagon.
So now what?
What is birthed from East meeting West? The “techno-boost!”
Could transformative technology be the key to bring us out of the cognition crisis?
Could technology enhanced meditation and mindfulness not only enhance our baseline of mental health but also unlock the human experience beyond what we could imagine?
UCSF is one of many institutions investigating these questions with technology enhanced meditation. Their latest research uses an app for personalized mediation protocols for optimized benefits on wellbeing. Check it out: Meditation Goes Digital.
The market for technology for stress reduction and meditation is booming to say the least. In 2015 the meditation and mindfulness industry made nearly $1 billion. As of the Summer of 2019, the meditation market’s predicted annual growth is nearly 11%. Furthermore, in March of 2018, CNBC reported that Calm (a meditation app) was worth $250 million. Another popular mindfulness app, Headspace, has an annual net revenue of more than $100 million.
One of the Transformative Technology’s core frameworks is Access — Outcomes — Enhancements. We stand for technology’s positive benefit on humanity with access to the masses, real and meaningful outcomes, with a truly optimized enhancement of the human experience.
Apps — Access
Within the techspace, stress reduction and meditation apps are the most readily accessible techno-boost. Between 2015 and 2018 more than 2,000 new meditation apps have been launched; therefore, anyone who wishes to use such an app will have no problem finding one. However, as of the summer of 2019, it has been reported that Headspace has been downloaded more than 42 million times and Calm has been downloaded more than 40 million times, making these two apps the most popular. Following these two giants are Insight Timer with more than 7 million downloads and Breethe with 5 million downloads.
Headspace offers hundreds of themed meditation sessions on stress, sleep, focus, and anxiety. These guided meditations come in 10-minute sessions and are voiced by Headspace founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe. Headspace also offers SOS exercises that can be used for “sudden meltdowns”. It also allows the user to buddy up with friends to stay motivated via accountability. The Calm app offers 100+ guided mediations from beginner to advanced levels. The Sleep Stories section offers soothing stories that are read by well-known voices. The Body section features ten-minute video lessons on mindful movement and gentle stretching. Lastly, in the Music section, hundreds of hours of exclusive catered music tracks including original compositions, nature sounds, and white noise are available to help the user focus, relax, or sleep.
Conscious OS is the world’s first contactless biofeedback, cross-platform app planning to enrich many industries beyond just meditation and mindfulness; such as automobile, health, sports, schools, and advertising.
But, do they work? People might be looking for a “short cut” — as taking time off from work and life to potentially have to sit in a cave on a mountaintop meditating to actually get the benefits, is not realistic. These apps do not necessarily provide the fast route as a customer may desire, and as some brands imply. Meditation still takes commitment, discipline, and time. More info here.
Wearables — Outcomes
There are an incredible amount of devices for mindfulness and meditation, which will probably be an endlessly innovated space. Currently, two of the most popular devices are backed by valid science, Muse and Spire. The Muse headband provides the user with neuro-feedback during meditation. The headband has sensors that detect the user’s brainwaves, which then provides the user with immediate feedback about their current mental state. When the user’s mind is active, more brainwaves are detected, and the app responds by showing hard crashing waves and playing their sound. However, as the user relaxes, and their brainwaves become less active and enter a more meditative state, the app shows calm waves and plays their sound. It’s important to keep in mind the Muse only has 4 sensors modulating activity in the pre-frontal cortex (near forehead) of the brain. Scientific research in this space is only beginning; however, Krigolson and collogues at the University of Victoria have shown that Muse is an effective tool for collecting brainwave data. Kelm, from the Mayo Clinic, and colleagues have shown that those who use the Muse headband and engage in Mindfulness meditation show improved well-being.
Spire is one of my personal favorites. Spire primarily tracks breathing patterns to regulate stress and levels of calm, but it also monitors heart rate, calories, and steps. It is a small, pebble-sized device that clips to a belt buckle or bra strap. The Spire tracker and its app work by sensing the breathing patterns of the user and alerting them if there are any noteworthy changes. It will ping you and tell you to calm down by taking some deep breathes in a text. The Spire has some solid research to back it up, conducted at the Stanford University’s Mind & Body Lab, who teamed up with the LinkedIn Corporation to study Spire’s effectiveness. The results showed that the group who wore the Spire for 30-days at LinkedIn experienced less stress, stress symptoms, anxious days, and negative mood and more energetic days and physiological states of calm and focus than the group who did not wear Spire. Spire does not necessarily market themselves as a meditation or mindfulness wearable, but any meditator or non-meditator can appreciate its effectiveness and simplicity to enhance wellbeing and gain a deeper self-regulation practice, moment to moment.
Another technology in the wearables space is that of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). There are many versions of this type of device, as they have been around for a long time and are currently making a comeback in TransTech. In tDCS constant, low intensity current is passed through two electrodes that are placed on the head in specific areas, depending on the targeted outcome. These direct electrical currents modulate brain activity and stimulate the brain. This type of brain stimulation technology has historically been used by military and the gaming industry to enhance learning, focus and accuracy of tasks (such as shooting a target). Although recently Dr. Bashar Badran has taken the technology of tDCS even further to enhance meditation, or what he calls e-meditation.
Badran and his colleagues at the Medical University of South Carolina pair tDCS with guided meditation in order to reduce the time it takes people to learn how to meditate and also to enhance the effects of meditation.
Badran’s team has shown preliminary research with 15 healthy individuals to show that E-meditation has positive effects on mood and meditation states. I recently saw Badran on stage at the Awakened Futures Summit in San Francisco, asking, “are these technologies a short-cut?” and what are the implications of having a short-cut? To learn more about E-learning, go here, and information about Dr. Badran’s company, Bodhi Neuro Tech, is here.
VR / VR
Technology for stress reduction also exists in the virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) space. A new company, Healium has innovated this space and I’m personally excited to try this. Healium combines oculus VR (or any device that supports VR or AR) with the Muse neurofeedback headband to reduce stress and anxiety. A smartwatch can also be used if you don’t have a Muse headband. The integration of whatever two devices you have is integrated in the Healium VR app. However, if you do not have a VR headset don’t worry, Healium also offers an AR app that can be downloaded for both iOS and Android devices. How versatile! If the user has a Muse headband, the app will monitor their brainwaves, and if the user has a smartwatch it will be used to monitor their heart rate. As the user’s mind settles and their heart rate lowers, they can observe a solar system as it shines brighter or flowers as they grow. Sounds fun!
Oculus also offers FlowVR Meditation, as you may have guessed this is a meditation app. The FlowVR Meditation app offers a 360° virtual reality experience in 4K quality. The app offers music and guided meditation as the user works through six modes. These models are: 1. Breath, 2. Focus, 3. Movement, 4. Letting Go, 5. Calm and 6. Restore. The FlowVR Meditation website claims that in just four minutes you can receive the positive effects of meditation, such as calm, focus, and energy. Oculus also offers an app named, Deepak Chopra Finding Your True Self, this app provides a virtual reality meditation simulation with philosopher, physician and bestselling author Deepak Chopra. But again, keep in mind — to feel the long-lasting benefits of meditation, it takes time, discipline, and rigor.
The French company OpenMind is also offering a VR experience with biofeedback in a neuropsychology clinic setting in Paris France. Users of OpenMind’s program receive biofeedback about their breath and heartbeat and learn how to use this information to engage in stress resistance. Users of this program get to train their stress resistance skills playing a shooting game in outer space. All while receiving therapy sessions with clinicians for personalized VR experiences based on their health needs and goals. Other clinics like this exist and more and more will be popping up.
For a less clinical experience but a larger price tag than any app, techno-retreats are now a thing! Such as the Monastic Intensive Retreat , which uses Badran’s Bodhi Neuro Tech tDCS and led by Shinzen Young, an American mindfulness teacher and neuroscience research consultant. Shinzen Young has collaborated with Harvard Medical School, Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Vermont in the research of contemplative neuroscience. I believe that this is an example of one of the very first technology-enhanced meditation retreats facilitated by a true expert meditation teacher.
Another option is The Biocybernaut Institute, Inc., which was founded in 1983 by Psychologist Dr. James V. Hardt and offers 5 to 7 Day Brain Training courses using neuro-feedback, which I have heard to be profoundly transformational.
For an even more individualized experience, one may try Field, targeted for people who strive for high-performance. Based on an individual’s brain data and personal goals, Field designs a personalized protocol in a high-end retreat setting. Another similar example is, 40 years of Zen.
However, these experiences are quite costly. We look forward to the deeper high impact results that these retreats may provide to be available more readily to the masses through accessible technology, as the TransTech space advances. That’s the mission!
The Newest “Bleeding Edge” — Enhancements
The hot topic in this extra-niche space is Transcranial Ultrasound (TUS) brain stimulation.
Jamie Tyler’s lab at Arizona State and Stuart Hameroff’s lab at the University of Arizona innovated research on Transcranial Ultrasound (TUS) technology on humans starting in 2012. Then in 2015, groundbreaking research showed ultrasound stimulation as a way to remove amyloid-β plaque restore memory in mice with Alzheimer’s disease.
Ultrasound consists of mechanical vibrations, usually in low megahertz (MHz), used for many years in medical imaging. TUS applied at the scalp and aimed at the brain at low intensities is totally painless. These sub-thermal TUS (~150 to 700 mW/cm2) is aimed at augmenting natural brain activities. The FDA has designated an ultrasound thermal threshold at 720 mW/cm2. Sub-thermal TUS can safely and painlessly stimulate brain activity without long-term effects or damage. It’s pulsed on and off at arbitrary frequencies and patterns, focused on particular brain area, and used is either focused or unfocused broad-beam or scanning modes.
Improving the memory and cognition, as well as quality of life, in people with Alzheimer’s disease is a huge public health concern, which is where TUS on humans research continues to advance rapidly.
I personally remember (as a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona) when Dr. Jay Sanguinetti was experimenting with TUS on himself, fantasizing about having a cliché “eureka” moment as a scientist.
Well, he definitely had that eureka moment! Just in the last few years, TUS technology has advanced well beyond the standard imagery scan. Now, there are TUS devices that get past the skull and surface levels of the brain, to be able to stimulate (or sonicate) basically anywhere deep in the brain regions with precision ability at the scale of the size of a bean (5 x 5 mm).
As a student of meditation, Sanguinetti is a close associate of the prominent meditation teacher, Shinzen Young. The two of them explored targeting the area of the brain that is associated with suffering with Shinzen being the lab rat.
And the result? As a mediation teacher who’s been meditating for over 30 years to say he was experiencing novel experiences of higher states of consciousness is a meaningful endorsement for TUS’ capacity to be effective.
It was Shinzen himself who coined the term, techno-boost!
So, what exactly can TUS provide for the intermediate and advanced meditator? Based on subjective reports, including my own, it seems as though TUS can help people access higher states of consciousness with less effort. Imagine (if you can) achieving a similar level of awareness that you might halfway through an intensive meditation retreat, such as a Vipassana, but within minutes, and zero effort. Though it’s difficult to say that an effect like this is universal without more research.
For someone with little to no meditation experience, it also has significant benefits. For example, according Sanguinetti’s research, when the right inferior frontal gyrus is stimulated with TUS, positive mood states are enhanced. TUS to the anterior cingulate cortex put people in a “non-attached” state according to a standardized non-attachment/mindfulness scale. TUS also influences resting-state functional connectivity with fMRI brain scans.
See the research publications here.
TUS is truly the beginning of a wild new frontier in science of consciousness research, and for our global culture of the cognition crisis — from Alzheimer’s and dementia, depression and anxiety, to higher states of consciousness and beyond (dare I say enlightenment).
TUS brings exciting times for a radical change in many overlapping industries, although more research is still needed to ensure safety and explore dosage with specific protocols.
Sanginetti, Shinzen, and a small team with Stuart Hameroff are working on the early research phases out of the University of Arizona’s Center for Consciousness Studies, opening a new research sector: SEMA Lab (Sonication Enhanced Mindful Awareness). SEMA lab will be studying whether their new techno-boost mindfulness protocol can treat addiction, chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.
Others have picked up the torch in suit with Sanguinetti, and are also exploring TUS with meditation for accessing higher states of consciousness. Thus the TECHNO-BOOST is well underway.
A New Era
Whether these tech companies suggest the management of stress and anxiety, or to enhance meditation — they all have the same goal, to stabilize inner peace.
Society has evolved to the point of the cognition crisis and now we are at the tip of the tipping point of cultural change. Stabilizing inner peace is no longer a choice or a luxury, it’s an urgent necessity.
Culturally, we are becoming more and more aware of how we are collectively deceived by misinformation, conformity, self-doubt, and old-wounds. The deception runs deep in our genetics, neural networks and behavior — creating confusion and stress as to who we truly are as an individual, and what it means to be human collectively.
Even if “enlightenment” is not your goal, I believe it’s safe to say that that every single human desires inner peace.
The rate at which the cognition crisis is increasing, human helping humans is no longer an open road to close the gap of human suffering. These mindful technologies, when used ethically, could be our fastest route out of the falsehood of misinformation and stress, and into a culture of awakening inner peace and joy.